By CAMILLE BOTELLO
The Kenai Kardinals volleyball team fell narrowly to the Valdez Buccaneers in an exhaustive five-game series to take home second place in the Class 3A state tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on Saturday.
“I think the more you win the harder it is, to not be afraid to lose,” Kenai coach Tracie Beck said after the championship game. “I feel like they worked hard all season long and had a perfect season, (I’m) just wishing it would have ended perfectly too.”
The state tournament is double-elimination. After losing a five-setter to Valdez on Friday in the semifinals, the Kardinals beat Homer, which finished third, in five sets on Saturday morning to reach the final with Valdez. Kenai would have had to beat Valdez in a best-of-five match, then win an if-necessary game to 30 to win the first title in school history.
Set one Saturday afternoon was evenly matched between Kenai and Valdez, with limited errors on each side. Kenai won, 25-22, after a four-point run at the end of the game.
The Kardinals showed up for the second game, getting an early lead and not relenting all set. They beat the Buccaneers 25-14.
Game 3 was a closer matchup, with Valdez coming back to give itself a new life, winning the set 25-20. In Game 4 the Buccaneers held on to their momentum, winning again to force a fifth set, 25-16.
Kenai and Valdez went back and forth during Game 5, staying within just one point for the vast majority of the set. In the end, the Buccaneers won on a tip, 15-13.
“I kind of feel like it slipped through our fingers, but they’re a great team,” Beck said.
Madison Alexie, the Valdez coach, said she was proud of her team’s state finish. The Buccaneers were undefeated in full-length matches this season, while Kenai was 21-2, with both losses coming to Valdez at state.
“I just wanted them to leave it all on the floor, especially the seniors,” she said. “They’re a great team, and they’re great girls and we’ll miss the seniors.”
Ambrosia Woodgate, a senior on the Valdez volleyball team, said coming back from a two-game deficit in the championship game is no easy feat.
“(You) remind everybody that it’s just a game and we should just have fun,” she said. “So just throw yourself, sacrifice your body for any ball and just have fun.”
Woodgate was awarded the 3A outstanding setter of the state tournament. She said she’s been working on her position for about six years now.
“It was great to get it because I’ve been setting since seventh grade and my senior year, it’s the best award I could get,” Woodgate said. “So it’s amazing.”
She said the competition at the state championships made the tournament lively.
“Everybody’s energy is just so good and everybody’s positive,” Woodgate said. “It’s great to play against good teams.”
Brooke Ashley, a senior for Kenai, said the matchup against the Buccaneers for the championship was a tough competition.
“I feel that we stayed strong as a team and that we did well under the pressure and it just came down to whoever was the best and Valdez was,” she said.
Ashley said in the five-game sets her team’s strength is definitely determination.
“I think it just ends up coming down to grit and who wants it more,” she said. “We get really competitive once … we’re down two.”
Kardinals senior Erin Koziczkowski said she was disappointed about the loss on Saturday night, but that looking back on her volleyball team has been a highlight.
“Our whole team, I feel like stands out; it’s not just one person,” she said. “And that’s what makes us work together.”
Andie Galloway, who was Kenai’s outstanding player of the championship match, said her team has made the season special.
“We really grew into a family, and I wouldn’t say I necessarily experienced that with any other team,” she said. “I feel like this group of girls, we were exceptionally close.”
Galloway said the Kardinals definitely gave the season their all.
“It’s definitely disappointing not to get first, but everyone’s fighting for that gold medal,” she said. “So I think that we fought, and there was a little hiccup here or there, but other than that I think we really just tried our hardest.”
Galloway had five aces against Valdez and won the tournament’s outstanding server award.
Sophomore Emma Beck led the team with 23 kills against the Buccaneers, and junior Jorgi Phillips had 24 assists.
Libero Valerie Villegas had 56 digs in the championship game and was awarded the defensive specialist of the tournament, as well as player of the consolation match against Homer.
Koziczkowski had five blocks.
Kenai 3, Homer 2
The Kenai Kardinals rallied from two games back to beat the Homer Mariners (15-4 overall) in final of the playback bracket Saturday morning in Anchorage. Homer was the defending Class 3A state champ, winning in 2019 before the 2020 tournament was canceled by the pandemic.
The Mariners capitalized on some early Kardinals mistakes — winning Games 1 and 2 by identical scores of 25-17.
Kenai’s energy shifted during Game 3 of the match.
The Kards cleaned up their play and beat Homer, 25-21, in Game 3 and again, 25-14, in set four.
The Mariners struggled to regain their momentum in Game 5. Kenai beat them, 15-2, to make the state championship game.
Homer took home third place in the 3A state volleyball tournament.
Stephanie Carroll, Homer’s coach, said she was happy with the state finish overall.
“I’m really happy with the way we finished,” she said. “Just getting to state was a big accomplishment for us. Then to make the top three … we only lost in this tournament to the number one and the number two.”
After losing to Valdez in the opening round Thursday, Homer had an incredible Friday to stay in the tournament — beating Bethel 3-0, Sitka 3-2 and Monroe Catholic 3-2.
Carroll said she was proud of her team’s resiliency this season.
“They did learn to kind of battle back,” she said. “We had some ups and downs … and they had to refocus and learn how to have a comeback from that so I think that really helped us get as far as we did.”
Junior Brooke Shafer won player of the consolation match for the Mariners. She said her team’s adaptability was one of their greatest strengths.
“We lost a couple players at the beginning, and I think we’ve done a really good job of working with what we had and making changes, and being OK with those changes,” Shafer said. “I think that’s something to be proud of.”
Gracie Gummer, a senior on the Homer squad, won outstanding hitter for the 3A tournament.
She said she was proud of taking home third for her school.
“We fought as hard as we could, I think it was a great end to our season,” Gummer said. “Kenai’s a great team too and we respect them so much and I know they deserve to win too.”
None of the Homer girls had played in a state game before, Gummer said.
“It was kind of unreal for us to be here … playing on the big court,” she said. “It was so much fun.”
Gummer said she wanted to give a shout out to her cousins who played volleyball in that gym for the University of Alaska Anchorage. She said she’s worn one of her cousin’s “lucky knee pads” for most of this season.
In the consolation game, Gummer led the Mariners with 17 kills.
Isabel Dye had six digs for Homer, and Nevaeh Diaz had four blocks.
Shafer set up 26 assists.
Valdez 3, Kenai 2
The Kardinals fell into the playback bracket Friday with the 27-25, 25-22, 17-25, 21-25 and 15-7 loss to the Buccaneers.
Cali Holmes was player of the match against Valdez, getting eight kills and six stuff blocks. Jorgi Phillips had 25 assists and an ace, while Emma Beck had 22 digs, 15 kills and six stuff blocks, Andie Galloway had six aces and four kills, Kim Chanley had two aces, and Valerie Villegas had 35 digs.
Homer 3, Monroe Catholic 2
The Mariners advanced to the playback semi against Kenai with a 23-25, 19-25, 25-23, 28-26 and 15-11 victory over the Rams on Friday.
Gracie Gummer had 26 kills for the Mariners, giving her 67 kills in the three matches Homer played Friday. Izzy Dye had 10 kills, while Brooke Shafer had 36 assists and four kills.
Homer 3, Sitka 2
The Mariners advanced to the playback quarterfinal with a close victory over the Wolves on Friday. Homer won 25-18, 25-22, 16-25, 21-25 and 15-10.
Gummer had 30 kills in the match, while Dye had seven kills, Nevaeh Diaz had six blocks and Shafer had 41 assists.
Monroe Catholic 3, Seward 2
The Seahawks came up just short of the playback quarterfinal Friday and finished tied for fifth in the tournament.
Seward, which finished 10-8 in full-length matches, lost 14-25, 25-19, 24-26, 25-20 and 15-13.
“I’m very happy,” Kurtz said. “Our girls have no reason to hang their heads. They played great this whole season and worked hard.”
The Seward coach said this was a great match to cap the season.
“The game against Monroe was just awesome,” Kurtz said. “It went five sets and it was just a great competition between both teams.”
The Seahawks were making their first state appearance since 2016. Kurtz said that was special, especially for the five seniors.
“This is something they’ll always remember,” she said. “They wanted this, they spent a couple years trying for this, and their senior year they put their hearts out there, went for it, and did it.”
Seniors Gaia Casagrande, Anna Endres and Shelby Sieminski each won player of the match at state. Hailey Anderson and Hannah Schilling are the other two seniors.
Seward won the sportsmanship at the Class 3A state tournament.
Homer 3, Bethel 0
The Mariners stayed alive in the playback bracket early Friday with a 25-13, 25-11 and 26-24 victory over the Warriors.